Where did the Seattle Mariners go wrong?
The Mariners won on Thursday! That's not uncommon. The Mariners have won a bunch of times, if you think about it. But they haven't really strung them together. They haven't won two games in a row since the start of the month. They haven't won three games in a row since the last week of May. In the Mariners' best month so far, they went 14-14. Right now they're hanging around the bottom of the American League, and though the Mariners haven't yet sold pieces off, the playoffs look like the longest of shots. Maybe a miracle is in the cards. Probably not. Miracles are never probable, or else they wouldn't be miracles.
Speaking of things that aren't uncommon, seeing the Mariners toward the bottom feels familiar. They haven't made the playoffs since Ichiro was a rookie. But this year was supposed to be different. Last year wasn't bad, and then the Mariners added Nelson Cruz. And Cruz, for the most part, has been terrific. Only a few months ago, the Mariners were the popular pick as division favorites. Now they have to be thankful for the struggles of the Red Sox, Indians and White Sox, as they aren't the obvious biggest disappointment. This wasn't supposed to be close to a last-place team.
I'll admit, when you're dealing with a last-place team, the last thing most people want to do is look back. And I think a lot of people have some understanding of how the Mariners have gone off track. It's not a mystery, and of greater concern is where the team goes from here. But I did want to take this opportunity to run some math. To divide blame, if you will, for why the ship has sunk. I think this can be instructive.
We have all the current numbers we need. The Mariners are 44-52. They're fourth from the bottom in the majors in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). We also have all the old numbers we need. At FanGraphs, before the season, we projected the Mariners to win almost 55% of their games. That winning percentage, over 96 games, would yield a record of about 53-43. So the Mariners are presently about nine wins off the expectation. Where were those wins supposed to come from? Where haven't they come from? Helpfully, we have all the individual player preseason projections.
Those are a big part of the graph to follow. Before the year, we had player projections and playing-time projections. Those were over a full season, so what I did here was prorate the projections to 96 games. I was most interested in projected WAR, and while people have some valid issues with the metric, it works well enough. So, I calculated projected 96-game WAR. Then I looked at the actual WAR to this point, for each player, and found the difference, subtracting the projection from the actual number. A positive result means a player has out-performed the projection. A negative result means the opposite.
Do you get it? You probably get it. Even if you don't, the graph should make it easier. Let's see how the Mariners have fared. Let's try to find those missing wins:
You can't be too surprised. All this does is quantify what a lot of people already figured. Every team should be expected to have some players who over-perform, and some players who under-perform. When things go normally, those over- and under-performances basically cancel out. The Mariners haven't canceled out. Represented above is an under-performance of 9.5 WAR, or thereabouts. That matches the under-performance in team record.
It hasn't all been bad. Of course it hasn't all been bad. Cruz's actual WAR right now is three times the projection. Though streaky, he's been one of the best power hitters in baseball. Carson Smith has been outstanding, over his projection by a full win. Ditto for Seth Smith and J.A. Happ, as far as the second part goes. Kyle Seager's been a little bit better than expected. Brad Miller's been a little bit better than expected, or at least he hasn't been worse. This paragraph contains most of the good news.
The bad news is bad news. The good news about the bad news is that Robinson Cano has looked like his old, classic self this month. He's played like a superstar, but that doesn't erase the memory of three miserable lost months. Whether it had anything to do with Cano's health, what happened happened, and he deserves the biggest individual share of the blame. Those are two or three missing wins, right there. The Hisashi Iwakuma story hasn't been much better; Iwakuma had a DL stint, costing him playing time, but he also has allowed dingers on top of dingers, and his recent success has probably come too late to save the Mariners. If it's saved anything, it's Iwakuma's trade value.
Dustin Ackley wasn't supposed to be good, but he's been quite lousy. And while, like Iwakuma, he's been better lately, he's also lost playing time lately and seems destined for a change of scenery. It's appropriate in a way to see him virtually paired with Mike Zunino, another high-pick disappointment, albeit one with a shorter professional record. It's absolutely too soon to give up on Zunino as a long-term asset, but he keeps taking offensive steps backward, and the Mariners must surely regret adding and then immediately getting rid of Welington Castillo.
And Fernando Rodney has sucked. It's hard to know why, given that the stuff is there that made him successful. But when he was successful, it was hard to know why he wasn't bad anymore, so maybe this is just life balancing out. Several other players have under-performed, and I don't need to go through each one. I've highlighted the biggest numbers.
If you want to try something, just for fun, you can say Cruz kind of cancels out Zunino. Happ cancels out Rickie Weeks, Seth Smith cancels out Chris Taylor, Carson Smith cancels out Rodney, Seager cancels out Logan Morrison, Miller cancels out Austin Jackson, Roenis Elias cancels out Charlie Furbush, and Jesus Montero cancels out Yoervis Medina. Then you're still left with Cano, Iwakuma and Ackley, who've under-performed by almost six wins. You also get Felix Hernandez's slight under-performance, and Danny Farquhar's collapse, and so on. You can cancel out all the good. You can't cancel out all the bad.
As many of you know, the Mariners have had players who weren't expected to get time for them, before the year. Players like Castillo, Mark Trumbo, Mark Lowe and Mike Montgomery. Conveniently enough, all those players have posted an overall WAR of 0.0. Lowe has helped to make up for bullpen disappointments, much like Carson Smith, and Montgomery has somewhat capably filled in for missing starters. But then Trumbo has been awful. He only became necessary because Ackley was bad, and Weeks was bad, and Justin Ruggiano didn't do much. Trumbo isn't as bad as his statistics, but for the Mariners, that's little consolation.
I don't know if there's any consolation. Contention apparently isn't happening. The Mariners would need to win at a 56% clip just to finish at .500. That's identical to the Astros' current winning percentage. It would make sense to move free-agent-to-be Jackson. The same goes for Happ. The same might go for Iwakuma, depending on the Mariners' plans to re-sign him, or not. There isn't that much to sell, but it should be sold, because this hasn't worked.
The upside is what remains in place. It's still not impossible to see a competitive team in 2016. Felix is still a great starter. Seager's still good and underrated, and Cano is great, if this recent bounce-back manages to sustain itself. Miller is looking like a quality regular. If Cruz is going to decline, he hasn't gotten there yet. The Mariners don't want to blow things up, but the Mariners also don't have to blow things up. It's been a bad season. It hasn't been a catastrophe.
Maybe it's been a catastrophe for Jack Zduriencik. There's a chance he loses his job. For the rest of us, it's been a letdown. It's a fan base pretty accustomed to letdowns.